Monday, September 24, 2007

Ontario Education: The 3rd Post

I've been meaning to get around to this for a while, but have been sidetracked with the faith-based funding debate and the Liberal's dirty tricks in that area.

So, this Ontario election campaign is shaping up to be about 'education', is it? Not so fast. Because, while there's lots of hot air around the faith-based funding issue, and still more around the 'broken funding formula', while there is talk of class size, special needs students, etc., etc., nobody is actually talking about education.

Education (at least the school component of it) mostly comprises what happens in the classroom between a teacher and his or her students. It is the process of teaching and the process of learning. Education is the imparting of knowledge and skills to the student by the teacher. It is, essentially, where a teacher does his or her job and it is the work of the system about which so many words are being spoken in this election campaign.

With this being clearly the raison d'etre of the system, and in the end, the only thing that really matters, you might expect an 'education' campaign to be about what happens in the classrooms of Ontario. But none of the politicians actually want to talk about that. They're all happy to talk about money, and who gets how much. They love to talk about the latest educational theories coming from university academics, and they (some more than others) love their warm and fuzzy photo ops with schoolchildren as props. But you won't hear them talk about what actually happens in the classroom.

The outcome of those years in the classroom appears differently to the political classes and the rest of us, as well. If you're Dalton McGuinty, for example, you're thrilled because test scores are up. If you're someone who has to hire highschool graduates from time to time, you've probably had occasion to differ with that rosy assessment. Take Doggerelle's experience, for example, when one of her employees presented her with a sales breakdown that added up to 113% and was stunned when Doggerelle told her it must be incorrect. "How do you know?" asked the young lady, who was by then a business student at Algonquin College. That's just one memorable example, but it's entirely representative of the output of the Ontario education system.

All test scores are normalized; that scores are 'up' is meaningless. We're never shown data on how the level of the tests themselves has changed over the years, and we're never shown the normalization applied to the results. Whether students can read fluently, write clearly, use a spell-checker and do basic arithmetic, on the other hand, can't be faked.

I have a textbook from 1920 at home, picked up in an antique store. It's from Canada, and it's aimed at Grade 8. There isn't a highschool in Ontario today that teaches math at the level in this book, even in Grade 12. It's at this point that McGuinty would trot out the international comparison; we're doing well compared to the US, etc. Well who isn't? All western education systems have embraced the same freewheeling experimental meddling of theorists, all are dumbed-down, all are universally awful. That we are less awful than some other unrelated system is not cause for celebration.

So why don't we talk about this? Why isn't this part of the campaign? There are two main reasons. One is that the people doing the debating are themselves the product of the steadily declining spiral of educational attainment. They don't expect any better, because the system is what made them. The main reason, however, is that to do so would be to tackle the real power-broker in public education: the teaching unions. The unions are all-powerful. It is they who have created a system that bleeds dollars away from education itself to ever increasing wage demands. They created and maintain a system that is self-evaluating and free of the lens of accountability. They have successfully beaten off any attempt to force outside inspection or evaluation, teacher testing or recertification. They run the show, and nobody has the political guts to do anything about it.

One notable exception in this area is Britain's Tony Blair. Early after he came to power, he did tackle education. He had a landslide election victory and with it the political capital to do so. His own Labour education minister was booed at teaching conferences, by the unions that were Labour's friends. But Blair stuck to his guns and schools have, by all accounts, improved dramatically as a result. He kept the Thatcher era reforms (grant-maintained schools, etc.) in place and used them to help fix the classroom.

So we can huff and puff about funding formula, about one school board or two. But unless anyone has the guts to shine a light on the actual classroom work and begin to demand better, I'm not sure how much it really matters.